Colourful Children

Part 3 – Norm-critical approach

This is the third part of the web course and should be carried out individually. 

The purpose of this part is to increase your understanding of and awareness of how excluding norms operate. In the texts, you will find various tools to help you develop a norm-critical perspective.

Remember to document your own thoughts and reflections. 

Norm-critical approach as support for equal treatment in pre-schools

Many who work in pre-school have already heard of norm-critical approaches or norm-critical pedagogy and have worked a long time with these questions. For others, this is a new area to explore. Some may think it is important and exciting, others could find it difficult. Many may already use norm critical tools in their teaching, for instance, to study how women and men are described in children’s books, without putting an etiquette on their methods.

But what does norm-critical really mean, and how can a norm-critical perspective contribute to teaching, pedagogy and learning? The following text investigates these questions.

Norms and norm criticism

What do children do in the preschool? Which children play with who, and how do they play? How do teachers relate to different children? What happens when children take selfies with the tablet? Who gets excited by swinging high? All these events in education are saturated with norms.

Norms can be described as all the ideas and unwritten rules that form us as human beings. Some norms create feelings of comfort and security, for example, that we in pre-school greet each other in the morning or eat fruit before lunch. Those are examples of norms being a positive force that can make our relations comfortable and safe. Other norms can be limiting. What may seem normal and right depends on time and place.

If norms are not transgressed, they are often invisible. This means that a person who breaks a certain norm often experiences friction, while one who repeats normative behaviour might be encouraged or will not take notice. For a person who never experienced friction, norms can be hard to discover. Norms also affect how we understand our reality and what we think is right and true, how we apprehend ourselves, others and the society around us (Martinsson and Reimers 2008, p 7-30).

Several reports establish that limiting norms can lead to discrimination and offensive treatment during education. These norms can contribute to oppression and a repeating of limiting power structures, which can lead to exclusion, discrimination and offensive treatment, for instance, violence (Skolverket 2009, p 88, Ungdomsstyrelsen 2013, p 13). Limiting norms might also entail mental illness and inequality. For children, this could mean that they don’t get the opportunity to develop their interests or their self-confidence. 

No child in pre-school should be exposed to discrimination, and all such tendencies should actively be counteracted (SKOLFS 2018:50).

Within norm-critical pedagogy, the focus lies on challenging norms which risk repeating oppressive structures (Martinsson and Reimers 2008, p 7-30). Norm critical pedagogy can be understood as an umbrella term, gathering methods that challenge and resist excluding norms. According to the Swedish Nationalencyklopedia, norm critique is defined as ”methods and theories used to work against discrimination and exclusion” (NE 2016). Norm critical pedagogy is a term for the power-critical methods used in education and teaching (Bromseth and Darj 2010, p 13).

Norms in preschool environments

We know there are excluding norms in pre-school, like in other parts of society. These norms risk delaying children’s development and learning. In the worst case, excluding norms entail discrimination, illnesses and violence. The preschool is a central arena in a democratic society, where children shall get the possibility to develop and learn equally, regardless of where in the country they go for preschool education. Children shall get the opportunity to examine and develop their abilities and interests in pre-schools without being limited based on, for instance, functionality, gender, transgender identity or expressions or colour of skin. (Skolinspektionen 2017).

The Swedish Schools Inspectorate has noted weaknesses in the work for gender equality in Swedish preschool education. A survey from 2017 showed insufficiencies in the systematic work with a gender perspective in pre-schools. It can be about that children don’t get the same possibilities to try and develop abilities and interests, regardless of gender. The survey also shows that 75 % of the principals and directors of pre-schools don’t give enough prerequisites for working with gender equality, for example, that gender equality is not included in the systematic quality work of a particular preschool (Skolverket 2018).

How can preschool staff work with norm-criticism?

Pre-schools need to systemize the work with basic values and norm-criticism and let it be an important part of preschool education. If the teaching only consists of occasional efforts, like lectures and theme days, it will be harder to manage a systematic norm critical work with a purpose. Occasional efforts without follow-up, reflection and supervision can lead to frustration and a feeling of inadequacy for the staff. Another effect that might occur is if the preschool ”copies” other pre-schools work without reflection (Andersson Tengnér and Heikkilä 2017, p 14).

A shared knowledge base among the staff in pre-school is essential for norm-critical work (Andersson Tengnér and Heikkilä 2017, p 14). Having a unified conceptual apparatus and a mutual theoretic frame of reference in preschool creates a base to go back to if there are questions or resistance in the work with basic values.

Who is represented and how?

A concrete way to work with a norm-critical approach in daily teaching, but also more general, is to examine and broaden representation. Representation means, for example, who and what is seen, heard and is visually present – in texts, in cultural expressions and physically. Representation is about the meaning and defining what is ”normal” or ”abnormal.” These processes distribute power and are often connected to identity formation. In the Swedish school curriculum (2018) it is made clear that preschool staff shall contribute to ”…that children regardless of gender are given preconditions for expanded experiences and understanding about their possibilities. The pre-school environment shall inspire and challenge children to broaden their abilities and interests without being restricted by gender stereotype opinions” (SKOLFS 2018:50, p 4).

Normative stories showing which lives are desirable and lead to happiness are constantly surrounding us. If you look through a daily paper or a catalogue of children’s toys, you can notice descriptions, in pictures and texts, of how people should behave, for example, in relation to gender norms. Pictures often clearly show how boys and girls are expected to behave or look. The consequences of being invisible or having a negative representation in the social environment can be absorbed by the child during growing up. One example is that a child tries to live up to ideals by reducing the differences between itself and the ideal. The scientist Ylva Habel describes the effect of this in an article: ”One of my first efforts in my pre-school years was to straighten my afro-hair with soap” (Habel 2008: p 42). This example clearly describes how ideals of whiteness can influence children’s self-image in a negative way.

Pre-school staff can work norm-critically with representation by reflecting on how they use digital tools such as film and photography. Pictures are powerful forms of communication, and they often reproduce limiting norms. Staff can also use their pedagogic documentation to analyze the education of their own preschool and examine what happens from a norm-critical point of view. Questions to ask yourself as a teacher working with pictures and film could be:

  • In which activities are children and teachers documented?
  • Do the pictures repeat ideas that girls should be cheerful and pleasing, while boys can be angry and active with no demands to control what they look like?
  • How do we ask children what they think about pictures where they are portrayed?
  • How do we teach children not to critically judge themselves and others by appearance when we work with one-dimensional tools like pictures?

Targeted efforts and intentional micro-actions

Pre-school staff need to work norm-critically with both targeted efforts and intentional micro actions (Björkman and Malmberg 2014, p 7). Targeted efforts could, for instance, entail the development of knowledge. In cases where the teachers lack knowledge of what racism is and/or how norms of whiteness affect children, a targeted effort can be to learn more about these issues. A follow-up could be to reflect on how pre-schools can challenge norms of whiteness in practice. Conscious, or intentional, micro-actions are the small everyday actions that can make a difference. It may concern classical examples like how to meet the children and their caretakers or how the staff helps the children get dressed, who gets help directly and who must wait (Dolk 2013, p 35-36 and 47; Eidevald 2009, p 131).

Another example of a norm critical action is to use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language, for instance, use the concept ”Lego person” instead of ”Lego man.” You can also apply a norm critical approach when you choose which apps you download and use as part of the preschool pedagogy (Andersson, Tengnér and Heikkilä 2017, p 58; Salmson and Ivarsson 2015, p 119; Summanen and Summanen 2017, p 79).

A norm-critical approach needs to include the full organisation of a preschool, from the daily meetings with children and adults to the working team’s common meetings. The staffs’ approach, their way of acting and how they speak about something affect children’s understanding and respect for the basic values underlying a democratic society. The preschool staff are, therefore, important role models. As a norm-critical approach is included in planning, working and evaluation, everyone who works in pre-school can contribute to equal treatment.


It is time to reflect on what you have read so far.

Think about the following questions:

  • Which limiting norms concerning gender do you find at your own preschool? Are there some norms and behaviours harder to handle than others?
  • What does the representation look like regarding educational material at your preschool? Is there anything you can do to broaden representation?
  • In what way could you work with targeted efforts and conscious micro actions as change strategies at your preschool?
  • How have you at your pre-school worked to broaden representation or taken part in targeted efforts or conscious micro actions as change strategies?

Reflection from Italy